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December 29, 2008

Into the Blue (1950)

A fascinating British documentary about the development of civil airlines immediately after the Second World War.



December 24, 2008

Thailand: Hua Hin

Where can travellers escape to for a beach resort retreat that’s budget friendly as well as being known as ‘fit for royalty’? Thailand’s Hua Hin of course.

Literally fit for royalty, Hua Hin is the summer getaway for Thailand’s ruling monarchy and elite. About two to three hours away from Bangkok by coach, many locals also now use the beachside resort town for their weekend holidays.

With development throttled by Royal Decree, and no building to go up beyond three stories unless it has special permission, Hua Hin has managed to retain its traditional laid-back, seaside character.

The ‘oldest’ resort town in Thailand, it still only sees around 90,000 residents calling the area home, and without an airport connection, there’s a tranquillity to the area not seen in more built up regions like Phuket.

Hua Hin’s idyllic white-sand beaches are a sight to behold, running 5kms long, it is rumoured to be one of the reasons why King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) built his summer palace, Wang Klai Kang Won “Far from Worries”, in 1928.

Hua Hin, can not only boast to be the holiday town of the Royals, but also has another claim to fame. The township and surrounds is home to the highest density of world class golf courses anywhere in Thailand.

In this backdrop of relaxation, the ‘spa culture’ in Hua Hin is worth a mention. Whilst Thailand is renowned for its wellness tourism, the spa experience is forefront in a complete Hua Hin itinerary.

Home to arguably the world’s best spa, consistently named in Condé Nast’s top three and awarded Luxury Travel’s Best Spa in the World in 2008, Chiva-som has seen a whole slew of the rich of famous step through their doors. Said to be Hollywood’s favourite spa property, Chiva-som doesn’t come without a price tag.

Of course, unwinding in Hua Hin doesn’t have to bankrupt a travellers account, with most hotels and resorts offering either an in-house spa or access to spa facilities – or travellers can be a little more adventurous and try out the array of massage parlours in the township.

The Hua Hin night markets are worth a quick glimpse as well, while not as bountiful as Bangkok’s block-wide sprawls, they have a character of its own – and many locals believe that souvenirs such as silk and carvings can be gotten here cheaper than in the capital; of course, bargaining is essential.

From relaxed three-star beach front properties, to the decked-out five-star locations that are almost a township to themselves, Hua Hin has a property to suit every budget – with even the higher end of town ‘cheap’ compared to average global rates.

For business travel, Hua Hin can cater small to medium sized events without a hitch. With bigger properties able to room guests in the hundreds, plenty of meeting space, and outdoor and wellness activities galore; Hua Hin would suit a wide range of needs.

With spectacular sunrises over the water, and the steep backdrops of the Prachuap Khiri Khan in the distance, Hua Hin is the perfect traditional Thai beachside experience away from the modern day Rat Race.

December 08, 2008

AUSSIES’ MAKE SEADREAM A CARIBBEAN COUP

david ellis

MODERN-day pirates may have guests ducking for cover on cruise ships off Somalia, but when a baker's-dozen Aussies decided on a brief "commandeering" of the world's Number One motor-yacht in the Caribbean last month, fellow guests didn't go running for cover – they went running for their cameras.

SeaDream I had just sailed 4952km across the Atlantic from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and had dropped anchor off sunny St Barts in the French West Indies when the Aussies sprang their Caribbean Coup.

Gathering at the ship's stern they swiftly lowered the official Norwegian flag, and in a flash had a 2-metre Australian one fluttering in its place - providing unique photo-opportunities aboard SeaDream I and on surrounding pleasure boats as well: it's not every day luxury cruisers are seen in those parts with the Aussie flag flapping from their flagstaff.

After a Champagne toast down our flag came and that of Norway (SeaDream Yacht Club is Norwegian-owned,) run-up again by SeaDream's security officer – one of only two deck officers who knew of the "surprise" event: the other was the Captain, who'd quietly given his approval.

The thirteen Australians were the third biggest group after Americans and British amongst the-just 91-guests on board, and also the most Aussies ever to make the annual 11-night relocation from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean where SeaDream escapes the Northern Winter.

And despite dire predictions from doomsayer mates, passengers on the boutique 4,300 tonne SeaDream I – and that included this writer – were not tossed around on a wild and stormy Atlantic: SeaDream's mega-motor-cruisers travel well south, missing the stormier conditions of the North Atlantic.

Apart from rain showers on the first day that prevented dining on deck, breakfasts and lunches were taken outdoors under shade-covers for the remaining 10-days, and the open-air Top of the Yacht Bar became a late-morning focal point for flutes of Champagne, rainbow cocktails in voluminous glasses, beers from Europe, America and Mexico, and wines from around the world (that are all included in the holiday price.)

A 3m swell eased after the first few days and from then-on it was much like lake sailing… in fact, so smooth was it towards the end that Captain Bjarne Smorawski had to reduce speed to avoid arriving ahead of schedule into our first Caribbean port, St Maartens.

And again despite the doomsayers, there was plenty to keep us occupied on our eight non-stop days across the Atlantic: a Handwriting Analyst and People Profiler, and an Astronomer each gave several talks to interested guests, while poolside was the place to chin-wag, read a book, or take a nap in the sun (and raise a languid hand to have your favourite drink miraculously appear – and your stewards clean your sunglasses and mist you with cool water if they deduced signs of fatigue in these gruelling conditions.)

And then there was the food, oh glorious food: Chef d'Cuisine, Tomasz and Pastry Chef Garfield (dubbed "The Pound A Day Men") offered sensation after sensation from traditional breakfast favourites through internationally-inspired luncheons, evening cocktails and dinner – always a particularly grand 5-star affair with Starters (Gratinated Escargots with Aubergine Compote and Champignon de Paris amongst the choices one night,) Middle Courses (Cream of Mushroom Soup infused with Truffle Oil another,) Chef's Main Dishes (decisions decisions: Grilled Lobster Tail, Roast Baby Lamb Loin or Duck L'Orange one evening,) and Garfield's sinful desserts that might include Chocolate Soufflé with Baileys Sauce….

For the Pound A Day guilty there were brisk morning walks around the top deck (that also raised funds for Miami's Children's' Bereavement Centre,) Tai Chi and Stretch Sessions, Yoga, golf on the 50-course Simulator, a state-of-the-art Fitness Centre, an optional-cost Spa, and less physically-demanding quizzes, trivia sessions, Black Jack lessons and Sundowners at the Top of the Yacht Bar to prepare one for the evening's pre-dinner Cocktail Party…

And yes, we survived to hopefully do it all again…

(The 55-couples/95-crew SeaDream I sails 11-nights from San Juan to Lisbon on May 3 2009 with prices from US$3527pp twin-share, inclusive of all 5-star dining, drinks from the open bars and wines with meals, nightly Cocktail Parties, use of a 50-course golf simulator, gratuities, port charges and taxes. See travel agents or visit www.seadream.com for more information including 2009's Mediterranean itineraries.)

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PHOTO CAPTIONS:

[] CARIBBEAN coup – not every day the Aussie flag flutters from a luxury ship in the Caribbean.

[] SEADREAM I slips by an idyllic Caribbean isle.


(PHOTOS: Malcolm Andrews and SeaDream Yacht Club)

December 01, 2008

PRAGUE GETS A BANG OUT OF NEW YEAR

david ellis

IT'S the snow that does it, bouncing the extraordinary New Year fireworks off Prague's white-capped buildings, parks and streets like some huge movie-lot reflector, so that the whole city seems ablaze in a double-dazzle of flashing white, electric blue, orange, red, purple, green and gold….

And under-foot it crunches icily as we sway with other boisterous revellers on the jam-packed Charles Bridge that links the Old Town of the Czech Republic capital with the approaches to the hillside Castle on the other side of the black Vltava River.

On the hill behind the palace, the official fireworks have just started. They're a bit late: pyromaniacs have been exploding their unofficial hauls for the past six hours in the streets, narrow alleys and squares willy-nilly, enveloping the city in a haze of gunpowder smoke.

And when the palace fireworks begin at midnight, it's a signal for our fellow bridge observers to reciprocate with extra fervour: out of coat pockets and backpacks emerge small skyrockets that are lit and launched out of the hand. Sparks shower nearby revellers; laughter and squeals of delight fill the air and we expect to hear screams of pain too, but they must be drowned out by all the fun.

In the darkness on the river a huge, unseen black barge launches its salvo that out-performs those from behind the castle, lighting up the snowy rooftops and parks and reflecting brilliantly in a myriad hues on the water.

Meanwhile, some Aussie friends who had earlier taken up a vantage point for the countdown below the Old Town Square's Astronomical Clock, are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with rowdy New Year's celebrants fuelled with beer, gluhwein and absinthe, the locally-distilled high-octane rocket-fuel.

Their's is a more confined space for a localized fireworks display, surrounded by the 60-metre Old Town Hall and the square's four-storey buildings. It is happening too in Wenceslas Square, which despite its name is not a square but a wide street, and in which fireworks now erupt from the steps of the National Museum.

Chaos. Cheers. Hugs and kisses as the New Year breathes its first suffocating seconds amid the acrid smoke. Just as had happened or would happen in countless cities around the globe on the stroke of midnight on December 31…

In just 15 minutes it's over, but not for the crowds: they disperse to bars and restaurants … or to let off more unofficial fireworks for hours to come, leaving the coming dawn's work crews to clear up the scorched paper and cardboard firework wrappings that have stained the snow red, pink and brown.

It looks like a vast battle-field.

And soon after dawn we stomp our way back across the 500-metres bridge named after Charles IV. It's already back to normal … hawkers, jazz and classical buskers entertaining scores of visitors just taking in the view up and down the river, and of the castle.

Promenading on the bridge is a favourite thing to do in ancient Prague, as is exploring the castle and its squares that date back to the 9th century.

We make our way through the charming baroque Mala Stala (Little Quarter) on the Royal Way route, discovering fascinating narrow laneways behind the main street and fall into a fabulous café for a thick, rich hot chocolate, European style.

And a Champagne starter to kick off the first day of the New Year.

At the castle, we're in time for the changing of the guard before losing ourselves in the royal courtyards, the gardens, St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St George and Dalibor Tower.

Unexpected is Zlata Ulicka, or Golden Lane, a cobbled alley along the northern wall of the castle populated by small colourful cottages once occupied by the castle guards in the 16th century, and later our Lonely Planet guidebook tells us, by royal goldsmiths.

We spend some final time taking in the views over the sprawl of surrounding white roof tops and then return to the bridge via the Castle Steps route that's now strangely devoid of fellow tourists …

It's not so easy finding a bed in Prague for New Year, but give Tempo Holidays a call on 1300 558 987 or try www.tempoholidays.com


[] PRAGUE'S snowy New Year roof tops


[] NARROW canals and alleyways are a highlight of Old Prague


[] PRAGUE Castle brings plenty of surprises


(Photos: Austrian Tourist Office)